On Monday night, I got a taste of the first olive oil to come out of Georgia in modern times. And you know what? It was pretty good.
Mild. A little nutty. Unobtrusive. But the main quality that its producers are really pushing is that it’s local, and because of that it’s really fresh—a key to good quality.
“There is not a fresher olive oil in the country,” Jason Shaw, a partner in Georgia Olive Farms, based in Lakeland, told guests at a tasting party at Emory University. “We’re six to eight weeks ahead of the West Coast’s harvest.”
Don’t get too excited, yet. With the first trees planted in spring 2009, this first crop was about a tenth of what the owners expect next year— and this year’s pressing is essentially spoken for. State agricultural experts, as well as the olive entrepreneurs themselves, caution that it’s too early to tell whether the trees will thrive in South Georgia’s climate.
“Olives are a crop that’s on the edge of its adaptive range in Georgia,” explains Dan Horton, University of Georgia professor of entomology. The summers are far more humid than olive trees growing in the Mediterranean would face, and the winters can be dangerously cold for the plants. But aside from a freeze scare early on, the Georgia farmers haven’t encountered any unmanageable issues with the weather.
“The biggest problem we have right now is, we don’t have enough oil,” Shaw says.
But that could change soon, if nature continues to cooperate. The partners— Jason Shaw, his brother Sam Shaw, cousin Kevin Shaw, and Berrien Sutton—have added more trees each year and now own or manage about 40 acres of high-density olive groves (605 trees per acre) in Lanier County. Others are trying their hand at olive farming, too: State Senator Tommie Williams planted his first trees last spring near Vidalia.
“We hope that Georgia olive oil will be the next Vidalia onion,” Jason Shaw said at the Emory event.
The big question, notes Lanier County Extension coordinator Elvin Andrews, is whether—or which—pests will move in. “We may get an insect that decides, ‘Olives, they taste real good.’ But we haven’t had anything yet.”
Lead farmer Kevin Shaw puts emphasis on the word “yet.” “We don’t have the olive fruit fly that is a pest all over the olive producing world, except maybe for Texas,” he says. “There’s none in Georgia so far. But as production ramps up, we’re probably going to start seeing some problems.”
So for the time being, this crop has been grown with relatively low amounts of chemicals for a conventional farm. Kevin Shaw says he’s used a standard fertilizer, calcium nitrate, an herbicide (including Roundup, Goal and Surflan) to keep the weeds under control until the trees’ canopies can do that naturally, plus about four applications per year of a fungicide, a copper product called Koside 3000, to protect the trees from diseases like peacock spot.
That may seem like a lot, but the scientists and the growers say that such things must be kept in perspective.
“Those that are kind of worried about pesticides and all, I think that’s just unfounded right now,” Andrews says. Compared with other Georgia conventional fruit crops, he says, “On olives, I can tell you, we’re using a lot less chemicals.” He sprays his own pecan orchards about twice as often as the Shaws have sprayed their olives.
Even so, that’s about twice as much fungicide as is used on West Coast olives, Jason Shaw says.
What will ultimately be necessary to protect the plants is still an unknown, says Kevin Shaw. “I’m not saying we couldn’t get by with doing what California does on the spraying. We’re just not ready to take that risk yet—and get total defoliation because of peacock spot or something.” He points out that the farm does use drip irrigation, a far more effective watering system than traditional spray (sprinkler) irrigation.
“We want to do what’s best for the environment. But at the end of the day, we want to protect what’s there, we want a return on our investment, and we want to be profitable.”
The olive farmers are confident that local food lovers will seek out their product for the same reasons they choose Georgia peaches (another conventionally grown commercial crop) over California or imported peaches: the product is fresher, the consumer feels a connection with the local grower, and the economic impact stays close to home. So stay tuned. Partner Berrien Sutton is trying a few acres of organic trees in nearby Homerville. And more of the conventional crop will become available next year.
> Dying to get your hands on some Georgia olive oil right now? It’s available, in very limited quantities, for $25 per 11.8-ounce bottle, plus shipping. To order, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Select retail locations will be named next year.
> Writer Jim Auchmutey explores the budding Georgia olive agri-industry in depth in the January 2012 issue of Atlanta magazine.